Dear Carolyn: I know teasing can be a playful way to get close or nudge us not to take ourselves too seriously. But sometimes I feel my wife uses it to express an opinion or point about me without saying it straight out.
These exchanges always seem a bit off, like little sidelong digs, but if I look at her inquisitively she says she was “just teasing,” implying that I missed the harmless fun. I end up feeling off-balance, like the episode served more to divide than join us.
If I’m misreading her, I want to stop and lighten up. If my sense of these situations is accurate, I want to respond more constructively. How do I know which is which, and where do I go from there?
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Think about a time when your attempt to tease someone fell flat.
Did you say, “I’m just teasing,” and imply your target “missed the harmless fun”?
Or did you apologize?: “It was supposed to be a joke. I’m sorry.”
There isn’t much of a verbal difference here, but there’s a huge emotional one. The latter is what you say when you upset someone you don’t mean to upset.
The former is gaslighting.
A nickel definition: It’s a subtle abuse tactic to make someone question him- or herself instead of the abuser. (See: “Snowflake,” circa 2016.) It disempowers and also isolates, since victims start holding back to avoid making these perceived mistakes.
So, your wife drops a sidelong dig, and you don’t feel closer to her, obviously – nor do you say, “Wow. That was mean.” Instead you retreat in fear that it’s your fault for being sensitive.
Read your letter, and note how distant you sound from the person you married.
It’s a surmountable problem, though, once you learn to identify and stand up to it, and – this is huge – determine that your partner is a decent person who is acting unawares on unhealthy reflexes, as opposed to someone who knowingly seeks (and justifies) the upper hand.
She’ll reveal which one she is when you articulate your discomfort with communication by snark.
If she responds with more blame, then you’ll know she’s not willing to build trust through openness. Counseling would make sense in that case – just you, though, not with a domineering spouse.
If instead she drops her defenses, enough to treat your feelings as valid – a prerequisite for breaking possibly lifelong emotional habits – then there is a clear and constructive path for you to follow:
First, you find the courage to communicate clearly – “That sounds like a dig. If there’s something you’d like to say to me, then please say it directly.” Next, she finds the courage to accept that: “You’re right, I wasn’t being direct: It bothers me when you do X.” Then you accommodate as you want to and can while remaining true to yourself.
This leaves plenty of room for harmless teasing – mutual, joyful, ulterior-motive-free.
The power ruts you’re in, yours and hers, deferring and dominating, are about holding on. That suggests – ironically – you’re both governed by fear of losing someone.
The way to keep someone, though, is to be open enough about frustrations, fears and affections to bring you close – and to accept the risk of finding out you’re better off apart.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.